Black Butler: Book of Circus
by Rose Bridges,
The first season of Black Butler faced the same struggle as so many anime that try to adapt an on-going story: How do we promote the manga while still giving anime-only fans a satisfying ending that won't leave them hanging? In Black Butler's case, an original ending was written based on what the first few faithfully adapted chapters suggested, slightly modifying earlier material to fit the new conclusion. Of course, the second season ripped that all open, retconning the first-season ending on its way to yaoi bizarro land. Now we're back to original manga material, seemingly inserted partway through the first season…or is it, really? It's clearer and clearer as we move forward that the third season exists in its own version of the timeline.
Ciel's flashbacks last week revealed that Book of Circus was going with the manga's origin story for his parents' death and pact with Sebastian, rather than the anime one. This made things a tad puzzling. The information was presented with the expectation that viewers already know some of this stuff, which is strange for the many anime-only fans like me. Pushing viewers in headfirst can leave them struggling to make sense of all the new changes. Luckily, Episode 8 has decided to nudge us toward some answers, devoting a huge chunk of its runtime to Ciel's backstory.
This episode, we learn more about the Circus members' mysterious "Father", Lord Kelvin, who knew Ciel and his parents when they were still alive. He has a pretty typical villain backstory for this show: jealous of the Phantomhive family's standings and beauty, he sought any means necessary to distort his own body into his own warped ideal. Fixated on the young Ciel, (the kid seems to attract a lot of creepy adults,) he collected his own group of children – the future Circus members – and fixed their own "impurities". Now he's desperate to add the current Lord Phantomhive to his "collection." It'd be pretty bizarre if it wasn't already par for the course for this very strange show.
Along the way, the show throws in oodles of fanservice. This season's been full of popular side characters popping up out of nowhere, reminding fans of the lines and gags that made us love them in the first place. Earlier we had Prince Soma and Agni hanging around the Phantomhive estate for no discernible reason, and this week we get the return of Grell, the flamboyant, cross-dressing Grim Reaper, and the most popular character in the fandom after the two protagonists. He doesn't seem to do much except race around with his chainsaw wreaking havoc, but hopefully he'll have something to do with the reveal of what his boss, William T. Spears, was looking for in the Circus. He's at his most ridiculous in the climactic battle scene, after Ciel and Sebastian's confrontation with Lord Kelvin sputters out. Members of the Noah's Ark Circus arrive at the Phantomhive Estate to bring Ciel to his knees, but they're mowed down by gardener Finnian's super-strength and maid Mey-Rin's sharpshooting.
The battle scenes would be a lot more climactic if not for the uninspired musical score, with its generic rushing-strings and booming-brass for every fight or dramatic moment. It's hard not to think back to the masterfully creepy choral tones that would accompany this sort of thing in earlier seasons. And the animation continues below-par, as in one scene where Kelvin cuts his hand and the blood trickles down his fingers. It almost looks like a solid ribbon rather than a liquid, to a distracting degree.
This episode is so jam-packed with both fun action and necessary backstory that it almost doesn't matter if the presentation is off at times. It answers some questions while still leaving enough open for an exciting final act. I know I can't wait to see what the remaining episodes have in store.
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